After thrilling NLDS, what do Friars have in store?

October 18th, 2022

SAN DIEGO -- How can they possibly top that? How on earth do you produce an encore to a dragon-slaying?

The Padres would sure like to find out.

When the dust settled on their history-making upset of the Dodgers on Saturday night, this much was suddenly abundantly clear: The Padres have a legitimate chance to win the whole dang thing.

If they can beat the 111-win Dodgers, they can, realistically, expect to beat just about anyone. That includes the Phillies, who come to town Tuesday night for Game 1 of the National League Championship Series at Petco Park.

"We understand there’s a few more steps we’re going to have to take,” said general manager A.J. Preller. “But most likely, if we were going to get to where we wanted to get to, it was going to have to go through the Dodgers."

The Padres, of course, would have taken any old victory over L.A. They'd been waiting decades for a moment like that one. But now that they did it -- the manner of victory was particularly important, too.

Specifically: They won the NL Division Series with a game to spare. That might prove huge.

After Game 4, manager Bob Melvin revealed that his plan was to pitch Yu Darvish on short rest Sunday in Game 5. Even if the Padres had won a Game 5 in Los Angeles, it would have set their rotation back for a series against Philadelphia that will feature its own share of challenges. Considering the heavy burden on San Diego’s high-leverage relievers, it would have set the club’s bullpen back, too.

“Darvish was ready to pitch in that game, whether it was four [innings] or something like that,” Melvin said. “Then with what happened in today’s game, it would have been difficult to use a lot of those [bullpen] guys. I’m glad we didn’t have to go down that road.”

Instead, with Saturday's victory, the Padres can take a deep breath -- and perhaps recover from the night’s raucous celebrations -- while presumably setting their starting rotation precisely how they lined it up at the start of the playoffs:

Game 1: Darvish
Game 2: Blake Snell
Game 3: Joe Musgrove

It's unclear who would start Game 4. Mike Clevinger, the team's No. 4 starter, is the favorite despite his poor outing in Game 1 against the Dodgers.

From there, things get complicated by the absence of an off-day between Game 5 in Philadelphia on Oct. 23 and Game 6 in San Diego on Oct. 24. Darvish and Snell could start those games, respectively, on normal rest. But Game 7 on Oct. 25 might require a short-rest Musgrove.

Of course, that's a problem for another day, if the series gets that far. Even while basking in their victory on Saturday night, the Padres acknowledged the task at hand.

"They're another Wild Card team that’s really caught fire late in the year,” Musgrove said of the Phillies. "They’re very similar to us right now. They’re riding on energy, riding on that high, feeding off each other and the city. It’s a good thing we start at home."

Who could have seen that coming? The Padres have home-field advantage in the NLCS. They earned that by finishing two games ahead of Philadelphia in the standings, wrapping up the No. 5 seed on the season’s penultimate day.

After San Diego clinched a playoff spot, some wondered whether the team might be better off taking the path of the No. 6 seed. That would have meant facing the Cardinals and Braves instead of the Mets and Dodgers. The Padres put that discussion to bed by defeating the Giants twice in the final regular-season series. As a result, they’re playing at Petco Park on Tuesday.

Whatever the chatter externally, the Padres paid no mind. They wanted the No. 5 seed -- even if it meant an NLDS against the Dodgers. Said one Padres official at the time: “We’re going to have to beat them eventually, so it really doesn’t matter.”

In Melvin’s eyes, it all lined up perfectly.

“When we were talking about it at the end -- where are we going to end up? -- we were going to have to go through the Mets, and we were going to have to go through the Dodgers,” Melvin said. “It felt like that was the way it was going to need to go. We gained confidence as a team beating the Mets that allowed us to come in and feel confident against the Dodgers.”

Now they’ll have all the confidence in the world, heading into their first NLCS in 24 years -- and they get to open it at home.